You’re so mean when you talk
about yourself, you are wrong.
Change the voices in your head.
Make them like you, instead.
I’ve been doing some reading lately about the power of negative self-talk. We all know that when we run ourselves down in our own minds, it hurts our self-esteem and creates an environment for the manifestation of the negative outcomes we fear. We know that it’s important to recognize and eradicate the self-bashing before we can really live our full potential.
Some of this is relatively easy to identify. It’s the same stuff that’s haunted us for years, and I think of it as the low-hanging fruit because it’s the easiest to spot. They’re the big, fat lies about ourselves that can dramatically alter who we become and who we are. That we’re selfish or a bad parent or ugly or stupid. That we’re never good enough or a bother to the people around us or a disappointment. These kinds of negative self-talk are the making of clinical depression, suicide, and addiction. They’re not easy to work through and past, and the longer we let them ferment, the more bitter and sour they — and we — become. This is the stuff that life coaches and therapists tackle with a full arsenal of psychological weapons, and it’s the stuff that makes your dearest friends roll their eyes because it’s ridiculous and they can’t believe that you give it any power in your life.
But then there’s the other stuff. The little stuff that hides in the corners. The stuff that has been repeated so many times that it becomes accepted truth — not just by you, but by everyone around you. These little, contemptuous criticisms that invade your psyche and convince you that you can’t do something, aren’t good at something, or don’t possess something. It seems that this kind of self-criticism usually starts with someone else — a parent, a spouse, a bully on the playground — who declares something about us with such frequency or authority or conviction that we integrate it into our own self-belief set and repeat it to ourselves and others, perpetuating what began as a myth and evolves into a self-fulfilled truth.
Many years ago I hired and mentored a young woman who could only be described as “butch.” In fact, when I first met her, I wondered about her sexual orientation because her physical appearance so strongly suggested that she was a lesbian, but my “gay-dar” said otherwise. As we got to know each other, it turned out that she was the middle girl with two brothers. Growing up on a ranch, her mother had always dismissed her as “a tomboy.” And that became her truth. Not because she choose it or loved it, but because she believed it and self-identified with it. She was 30-years-old before she began experimenting with her feminine side and deciding what of it felt truly right to her and what didn’t. The fact that she wasn’t pretty, wasn’t feminine, and wasn’t soft in anyway had become a truth for her. An uncomfortable, itchy, cumbersome truth, but a truth nonetheless. Later, when she really emerged from the box of labels that she’d lived in for so long, her life opened up in a myriad of other ways. So, even a label that wasn’t negative per se, became so when it was applied to her and allowed to confine her sense of identity.
These seemingly-less malicious blasphemies we tell ourselves and others about us gnaw at the edges of our self-esteem and deprive us of the joy of experiencing some of life’s smaller pleasures. That we aren’t good at sports or can’t carry a tune or don’t have any sense of fashion. That we’re too sensitive or not funny or a bad driver. None of these is going to, on their own, send us to the corner for a good cry, but when we’re casting about for reasons that make us unlovable, a nice long list of these reasons will suffice when a bigger one isn’t around to offer the weight. And the real harm of these so-called “harmless” criticisms is that they are small enough to frequently fly under the therapy radar, never receiving attention or facing protest, just gathering power as the years pass and they become part of our self-identity.
One example that I read recently — that certainly resonated with me — was the belief that one is a “bad cook.” The author cited this example as a common form of negative self-talk. The idea here is that we self-identify as a “bad cook,” based on the fact that perhaps we are not as good as we would like to be, but that is not precisely the same as being “bad” at something. I sat with that a bit. Chewed on it. Thought about it. I finally had to admit, with more than a small amount of surprise, that I’m not actually a bad cook. In fact, I’m probably as good as or better a cook than most people I know. The real truth is that I don’t particularly enjoy it, but that’s an entirely different thing from being bad at something. I don’t particularly enjoy golf , either, but I’ve never declared that I’m bad at it. Hmmm…
Next, the author asked us to try to remember the origin of the negative label or thought. Who said it? In what context? If someone said something negative or nasty about a friend, we would certainly consider the source and the context, but we’re pretty quick to just accept the bad stuff about ourselves. But isn’t that just backward-ass? If we go back to my cooking example, I realized that my belief in my inability to cook was based on three things: 1) my ex-husband’s lack of enthusiasm for my cooking, 2) my mother’s insistence that I am a bad cook, and 3) the fact that I have nearly always had a knack for dating men who can really cook.
Time to break those down: I now understand my ex-husband’s lack of enthusiasm as part of his general reluctance to offer me compliments or credit, lest our power dynamic (with him firmly and permanently ensconced above me) be disrupted. Okay. Good. Got it. My mom is actually easier. She doesn’t like the food I cook because the things I’m good at cooking aren’t the kinds of things she likes to eat (in fairness, I feel the same way about most of her cooking). So, it’s not really about my cooking. It’s about what she likes to eat. And as for the last part, if I’m staring truth in the face, the men that I’ve dated have been excellent cooks — at a few, select dishes. They weren’t Jamie Oliver in the kitchen, throwing together amazing concoction after amazing concoction. No, they were very good at a particular meal or a particular kind of food. And they had such supreme confidence in their cooking skills that I — again! — drank the Truth Kool-Aid.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I can think of lots of things about myself that I have repeated and defended and clung to over the years that aren’t actually true. I held them as true for a long time, just because someone else once said them and I accepted their truth.
I have always secretly, grudgingly admired those people who seemed completely unaware that they couldn’t carry a tune or had terrible decorating taste or a painful sense of humor. I would watch them move along, oblivious to what was obvious to everyone around them, and I would think that they were lucky to live in a world in which they were so awesome. I used to imagine that no one had ever told them the “truth,” but now I realize it’s more likely that they simply chose not to believe it.
One of my mantras to my daughters has always been “Just because they said it, it doesn’t make it true.” We spend a lot of time talking about what that means and how it applies in various situations. They look to me as a wise guru, guiding them in these discussions. Little do they know, that the master is also the student, and that sometimes the harshest, most brutal critic that we need to ignore is the one in our own head.